Friday, May 1, 2009

Scientific Debate of Climate Change on Social Networking Sites

Climate change, or global warming, is a popular topic of scientific debate on various social networking sites. Proponents on either side studiously present their factual evidence supporting their views and....

...sorry, I can't write that with a straight face. The truth is there is no real scientific debate on the issue of climate change on social networking sites. On the other hand, there is a lot of noise about the issue.

The fact is that after over three decades of research on the issue, thousands of peer-reviewed studies, and many compilations of the state of our knowledge on the topic, a clear scientific consensus has been reached that climate change is occurring and that human activities are playing a significant role in that occurrence. The debate now is on what policies best allow us to deal with the realities of the science.

But that doesn't stop the denialists from continuing to post their obfuscatory message, largely determined by ideology and then rabidly seeking any information they deem to support the conclusion needed to ratify that ideology. While there are probably many typologies of denialists, there are three distinct forms that seem the most vocal.

The cut-and-paster: This particular form of denialist largely relies on opinions copied verbatim out of blogs. They tend to suggest these blogs are "science" despite the fact that blogs are not peer-reviewed. To date, no one has even attempted to offer a convincing argument for why we should simply accept anything written on a blog as science. For why peer-review is irrelevant. For why having to withstand the scrutiny of the entire scientific community isn't important. For why a blogline known for supporting and being supported by purely ideological funders is science, but decades of scientific study and thousands of peer-reviewed publications is "ideological." These cut-and-pasters are relatively innocuous because they clearly don't understand science, but do tend to get annoying when they use every opportunity to insert their pastings into even totally unrelated threads.

The focused irrelevant: The second form of denialist is the kind that latches on to the "Al Gore invented global warming" canard or the "I saw some photographs and now I'm a climate expert" fantasy. Notwithstanding the fact that someone who normally posts non-science (e.g., humor) is an unlikely source for discovering something "that scientists who study climate change somehow missed," the naiveté of the presentation should speak for itself. First, the suggestion that scientists who use the data don't understand the quality of the data is simply silly, as the scientific process verily forces the discussion of every aspect of the related science. All uncertainties are then incorporated into the analysis. And second, focusing on one part of the data input and suggesting that it invalidates the remainder of the data used in the analysis demonstrates a significant lack of understanding of how science works in general and how climate science works specifically. It's like showing photos of a close up of a 2-inch square of plastic that makes up the bumper of a car (without showing the car itself), and saying that a smudge on that 2-inch square allows you to say that the car does not exist. The folks in this type of denialist simply show their lack of understanding by their incessant carping on the one red ball and ignoring all the blue balls as if they aren't there.

The poser: By far the least prevalent, but the most insidious, is the poser. Posers know full well that most people don't understand the science, and so go out of their way to "sound scientific." We are expected to simply ignore the fact that they suddenly have become "climate experts" after only writing fiction in the past (okay, technically they still are writing fiction). We should be taken in by the use of "official looking" but irrelevant (and laughably simplistic) calculations because, well, because they look official. They look scientific. We should assume that because there are some mathematical formulas in the post that anything and everything said must therefore somehow be accurate. The goal is to look technical, and thus by appearing to "talk over the heads" of most non-scientists, presume an air of authority. [What these posers are actually looking for is the smugness they can assume when someone effectively says "Ooh, he used math formulas I don't understand, so he must be smart, so he must be right."] The poser knows that he is posing, but does it anyway, caring little that he misrepresents the science, or that the "technical stuff" presented is largely wrong or irrelevant anyway. For the poser, the same 2-inch square of plastic is used to state definitively what kind of car it is, what year it was produced, how many miles it has traveled, how tall the driver is, and whether the driver had eggs or waffles for breakfast that morning. The problem is, because the calculations are wrong, the 2-inch square of plastic is not even from the bumper of a car, but from some random pile of plastic that is only barely related to the manufacture of a car. So the whole exercise is meaningless anyway.

Luckily, these folks mostly just talk to themselves. There is a tendency for them to gather together to mutually stroke each others egos and pat each other on the back for the supposed wittiness of their deceptions.

The point of this article, of course, is to say that science is not actually "debated" on social networking sites. Scientific debate must, and does, go on constantly in the peer-reviewed literature and at scientific conferences, among real scientists. While there are a good number of actual scientists on social networking sites, mostly they understand that scientific debate goes on elsewhere. In the past, many of these scientists have confronted the few lonely climate change denialist holdovers, pointing out the inconsistencies in their arguments, the lack of veracity of their sources, and the shear silliness of some of the calculations (I mean really, if you can post a calculation in a social networking site article then it clearly is not sufficient to describe the complexities of atmospheric, oceanic, continental, chemical, solar, and man-made influences to climate change). Unfortunately, denialists tend not to learn, and in fact conveniently forget, all of the information presented by real scientists, and thus simply repeat over and over the same points as if no discussion has taken place. Often, when faced with refutation of their posits, they turn abusive (or merely whine). And while scientists are used to arguing over details - after all, that's what we do - we do not suffer gladly those who show a lack of intellectual integrity. After a while scientists simply stop trying to explain to those who actively choose not to learn.

So for the most part scientists ignore the cut-and-pasters, focused irrelevants, and posers (with occasional forays just to get humor from their silliness) and rely on real peer-review with fellow real scientists doing real science in real scientific venues. Of course, we will still post articles related to science for informational purposes, but the actual scientific debate is done elsewhere.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

SURPRISE!! - US Government Asks for Public Input on Scientific Integrity

In a surprise move, the US government published in the Thursday, April 23rd Federal Register a "request for public comment" on a scientific integrity memo. This relates to the memorandum issued by President Obama on March 9, 2009, in which he required "the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)to craft recommendations for Presidential action to ensure scientific integrity in the executive branch." I discussed the memo in a previous post.

The Federal Register notice "solicits public input to inform the drafting of those recommendations." The notice asks "a series of questions to help guide the public in responding to this request."

As defined in the current Federal Register notice, the six principles of the President's March 3rd memorandum, and on which public comments are solicited are:

(a) The selection and retention of candidates for science and
technology positions in the executive branch should be based on the
candidate's knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity;

(b) Each agency should have appropriate rules and procedures to
ensure the integrity of the scientific process within the agency;

(c) When scientific or technological information is considered in policy decisions, the information should be subject to well-established scientific processes, including peer review where appropriate, and each agency should appropriately and accurately reflect that information in complying with and applying relevant statutory standards.

(d) Except for information that is properly restricted from disclosure under procedures established in accordance with statute, regulation, Executive Order, or Presidential Memorandum, each agency should make available to the public the scientific or technological findings or conclusions considered or relied on in policy decisions;

(e) Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and
address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of
scientific and technological information may be compromised; and

(f) Each agency should adopt such additional procedures, including any appropriate whistleblower protections, as are necessary to ensure the integrity of scientific and technological information and processes on which the agency relies in its decision-making or otherwise uses or prepares.

There is a 21 day period for public comment from April 23, 2009 to May 13, 2009.

The fact that this request for public comment relates to a presidential memorandum - which generally are edicts from the President without any public input - is a sign of a greater openness not just in providing the final results but also the underlying research and the process that went into developing the final outcome. It instills a greater degree of public confidence in the scientific process. It also gives all viewpoints - dissenting opinions as well as proponents - a chance to be heard. Which is likely to increase the chances of strong science-based policy decisions being made with less ideological manipulation.